BY HIS own admission, Alex Wodak’s stellar career has been little more than a series of accidents, most serendipitous.
But now 64 and being appointed a member of the Order of Australia for services to medicine and public health, he clearly remembers the day it almost slipped through his fingers.
”The 12th of November, 1986,” he says.
Wodak had been the director of drug and alcohol services at St Vincent’s Hospital, in Darlinghurst, for four years. The AIDS epidemic had cut a swath through Sydney, making its presence felt in the streets around the hospital where thousands of young gay men and injecting drug users lived.
Colleagues had predicted about 3500 men living in inner Sydney had been infected with HIV in about 18 months in the early 1980s, and many were drug users. ”I saw a terrifying cascade and I was really frightened. I didn’t know what to do.”
He wrote submissions to the federal government, pushing for permission to run a pilot needle-exchange program. When permission did not come, Wodak launched one anyway.
”I knew it was illegal but I also knew the law was wrong and the only way to change that law was through civil disobedience. I could see a cataclysmic epidemic taking place and I just had to do it.
”My colleagues thought I had taken leave of my senses. I knew I was taking a hell of a risk – for myself, my family and my [medical] registration, but I was certain I was right. I just didn’t realise at the time how right I was.”
Fortunately for Wodak, police agreed and did not press charges. Within two years all Australian states and territories were offering needle-exchange programs and now about 32 million syringes are exchanged nationally each year, but the experience left its mark.
”I have often wondered why I had to go through purgatory for something that was so obviously beneficial.”
But the fight is far from over. ”The war on drugs was a colossal, expensive failure, but we have committed to building a new prison every year for the next seven years. When will Australians cotton on that you can’t imprison your way out of social problems? Prisons should be seen as a last resort, not a first resort.”
Wodak, a trailblazer who helped establish the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, the Australian Society of HIV Medicine and the nation’s first medically supervised injecting centre, believes science should influence policy and human rights should be considered when designing any approach to drug use.
However, his final words come courtesy of the former Israeli diplomat Abba Eban: ”Eban has been quoted as saying, ‘History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.’
”I don’t know whether that is smart or stupid but I do know that despite all our fumbling in the dark and our terrible errors, historically we have always ended up making things right.”
Ingrid van Beek, the director of the Kirketon Road Centre, has also been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for services to public health and community medicine. She battled for five years to found the medically supervised injecting centre in Kings Cross in 2000 and was inducted into the National Drug and Alcohol Awards honour roll for her efforts.